Art Is Risky Business

From the start of my 18-year commitment to large-in-scope, not-for-profit, interactive installation exhibits in empty Maine mill spaces, my art has been risky business.

In 2000, just after what would be my 1st of 9 solo biennials, EXPERIENCE, I “announced” through my then-spanking-new website I would “at least do 5 more solo biennials in Maine’s mills through 2010” and posted their themes in order: “movement, change, sound, light, time…” I had no idea in 2000, if I could inspire 5 more mill owners to let me clean and use their spaces, nor if I would have the stamina to do 22-months of work per exhibit for a whole decade (let alone a second decade).

The opening of these respective exhibits would not only be milestones, but motivating deadlines. I told my universe “I will complete these tasks.” And I told my universe when I will complete these tasks. So I had better complete them.

illustration of road winding into idstance

In 2005, just after my 3rd biennial, I announced: “If in 2008 it feels like I can mount all the biennials I want to, I will install a total of 9, the last 3 biennials’ themes: space, matter, and memory.” I realize now as I write this, that 2008 –the year I officially committed to 9 exhibits total–was also the year I injured my back doing this work.

I don’t recall thinking “Can I still do this work?” Not continuing was not an option; I had made a commitment to my self to finish this. I remember instead, my brain sorting through countless scenarios and strategies: “How do I still do this work?” What do I have to do differently to see my plan through?

In addition to committing to something 18-years long, is the risk of funding it. In a previous post, I mention how as I devise 9 installations for each of these 9 respective biennial exhibits, I don’t think about how much each idea costs to make it physical. This would block my creative juice. But once I know which 9 concepts I want to explore, and what I want them to look like, I determine the overall initial budget.


I don’t watch the numbers add on my calculator as I plug in insurance, carpentry, drywalling, assistants, materials, advertising, space use, transportation, traveling expenses, waste removal, and documentation costs. I only look upon my little calculator’s window once I plug in the last added number. And every time I look at that overall number, every 2 years, I think: “How the heck am I gonna raise all of that?” And every time I look at that overall number, every 2 years, I immediately start to think of ways to simplify my ideas.

Editing is part of my process. This is not just about $, but more importantly, because the more minimally and simply I present my installations, the more resolved they are, also the more apt participants will connect with their concepts (future post).

Even after I edit, edit, and edit, which ultimately leads to a smaller overall budget, I still determine any possible alternatives for each installation. I do this in case I don’t reach my funding goal, additionally because I don’t know what mill will host my idea. Will my installations “fit” in the mill? Will the mill have electricity? Can I hang from the ceiling? Will it be long enough? Will the bays be wide enough…?

Will I find the mill?

mill space for CHANGE (2004)
Brunswick, Maine’s Fort Andross, CHANGE (2004)

Riskier, than funding these 9 exhibits has been finding each mill. Finding the mill is always in the back of my mind as I begin my installations’ repetitive labor at my studio. Finding the mill, is always, more stressful than finding the money. If I can’t find the mill, where will I mount this work I promised my self, my universe, my sponsors, and my grant makers I will make?

This being said, it would be great if the reason I couldn’t find mills to host my biennials, was that they were all being used. My effort as I scrub these massive floors is just as much about re-energizing spaces as it is about making canvases for my work.

But the sad fact is, not all of these still-standing mills are revitalized. “Finding” mills with empty spaces large enough for my concepts (so for 16,000-27,500 square feet), in and of itself, has been relatively easy. For most biennials I have had several mill owners to query. The risk is that even if an owner says “yes,” I still don’t have a space if the mill is not yet up to code.

After I have spent time visualizing my work in the space, if the mill has not recently passed code inspections, etc., I walk through the space from entry to exit with the town’s fire marshall and code officer (and sometimes their staffs, and the police chief, and deputies, and the town manager, and the town selectmen, and sometimes twice), explaining the space my work will take up, and the things I know need to happen for the space to be safe. These hospitable folks then tell me if they have any other at-minimum requirements. This walk-through is ultimately what determines whether or not I have a space for my biennial.

While few mills I have approached were not possibilities because they were about to become condos, most mills were impossibilities because the cost for me (or the owner, or me and the owner) to bring the mill up to code was not within my budget (his budget, nor our budgets).

To reduce the risk of my not finding the mill to present my work, for each biennial I query and visit as many mills as possible in hopes that one mill will work out. Multiple mills, multiple towns, multiple layouts, multiple walk-throughs, multiple budgets, all in a span of 4 or 5 months just before I start installing.

For many biennials, only one mill did work out. But that is all I needed, one mill. Remarkably, each one mill has been my top choice, the best “fit” for the installations I conceived.

Bates Mill
Lewiston, Maine’s Bates Mill, EXPERIENCE (2000)

Because I hope to mount my last solo biennial in one last mill in Lewiston, Maine, the town who graciously hosted what would be my 1st biennial, I will start my query process a little earlier, just in case the answer is “no.” Either way, everything will happen as it is supposed to.